All 10 articles passed in first online Town Meeting in Franklin County

  • Montague’s online Special Town Meeting on Thursday was the first ever in Franklin County, and the third in Massachusetts. SCREENSHOT

  • The Chestnut Hill Loop bridge in Montague is closed pending replacement. Special Town Meeting voters appropriated $77,150 on Thursday to put toward the project, although it is primarily funded by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • The Montague Water Pollution Control Facility at 34 Greenfield Road. During an online Special Town Meeting on Thursday, voters authorized the sewer department to spend $285,000 on upgrading two outdated machines. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

Staff Writer
Published: 2/26/2021 10:31:07 AM

MONTAGUE — Special Town Meeting voters on Thursday approved significant investments in updating sewer department technology, replacing a failed bridge in Montague Center and supporting an expansion of the Turners Falls Municipal Airport that is expected to make the airport financially self-sufficient.

The meeting was also notable in and of itself for being held online. Special state laws created during the pandemic allow representative Town Meetings to be held remotely, but not the open Town Meetings that are more common across Franklin County.

Moderator Chris Collins said that Montague was the first town in Franklin County to ever hold a remote Town Meeting, and the third in all of Massachusetts.

“We’re making a bit of history tonight,” he said.

Notwithstanding some confusion early in the meeting regarding the multiple software systems that were in play, the meeting went smoothly. All 10 articles on the warrant were passed in three hours.

The airport, which was asking for just over $1.5 million, generated the most discussion, even though Airport Manager Bryan Camden held multiple public information sessions on the project in the weeks leading up to the Special Town Meeting.

In brief, the town is lending money to the airport to help fund the purchase of the neighboring 10 acres of property, collectively called Pioneer Aviation, which has key assets for the airport, including a fueling station, a flight school and hangar space.

If the land was sold to different owners and converted to non-aviation use, Camden has said, it would threaten the viability of the airport.

“This is going to tie down and secure these services for the future of the airport,” Camden said. “They are critical to have. You can’t operate a facility without them.”

Owning them would not only secure the airport’s future, but would also introduce several new revenue streams that would make the airport financially independent from the town. With the new revenue, the town’s loan to the airport should be repaid in 10 years, Camden said.

The Montague Airport Commission also endorsed the project.

“The commission is in full support of purchasing Pioneer (Aviation),” said Airport Commissioner Seth Rutherford. “Without this, my fear is that the airport is going to wither away, because we’re not going to have the services to attract aircraft.”

The bridge set for replacement is on Chestnut Hill Loop. It was closed in the fall, following an inspection by the state Department of Transportation (MassDOT). But the town had already expected to replace it, and has already completed design work.

Town Meeting voters appropriated $77,150 to put toward the project, although it is primarily funded by a $450,000 grant from MassDOT.

“This is a great opportunity to get one more bridge checked off the list of failed and failing bridges in Montague,” said Town Planner Walter Ramsey.

The sewer department was authorized to spend $285,000 on upgrading two outdated machines — one of which was purchased when the department’s major customers were paper mills, and is no longer suited to the consistency of wastewater; the other was an outdated chemical disinfectant system that used chlorine, which is no longer industry standard, sewer Superintendent Chelsey Little said. Both upgrades are required by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Though the money had to be authorized by Town Meeting, it comes from the department’s budget, and is essentially built into sewer fees.

“The cost of this article is not going to increase anybody’s sewer bills,” explained Finance Committee Chair Jen Audley.

As a gesture to Montague’s Emergency Management Director John Zellmann, who is also chief of the Turners Falls Fire Department, Town Meeting voters also agreed to increase his stipend for the emergency management work for the current fiscal year from $5,765 to $7,500. Town Administrator Steve Ellis said the increase represents “a fraction of the true overtime” that Zellmann had worked in the last year.

“We want to recognize all the additional work he’s done,” said Selectboard member Michael Nelson. “The amount of work he’s put into this pandemic has been significantly more.”

The extra stipend comes out of Montague’s money from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Ellis said the extra stipend doesn’t impact the town’s other uses for its CARES Act money.

Reach Max Marcus at or 413-930-4231.

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